Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak between the Himalayas and Papa New Guinea, standing at 4,095m above sea level. There are limited climbing permits a day as you need to stay overnight at the Laban Rata resthouse which has a certain number of beds. It takes 2-3 days (with altitude acclimatisation). When I eventually researched all of this…the night before the climb… I realised it was likely more of a challenge than I had originally anticipated!
We arrived at the starting lodge at Kinabalu Park the afternoon before the climb, in a torrential downpour…already it was not looking good. We used the time to get used to the slightly thinner air and pack our overnight bags. With the prospect of walking with the pack for 15+ hours up hundreds of steps and over boulders, through jungle and on ropes – a lot of usual essentials stayed behind.
Towel? No need when you can pack some wet wipes. Pyjamas? Not necessary when you can sleep in your day clothes. Toiletries?! Travel sized deodorant and toothpaste only required – for one night a finger can be a brush.
The reason for being so minimal in our packing was the need for warm (and therefore bulky) clothes. Temperatures at the base are around 30 degrees, at the top, it’s below freezing. So warm hats, scarfs, leggings, and thermals are all required if you are to reach the summit.
The trek started at 8.45am the next day at the Timpohon Gate entrance after some panic buying of head torches and hiring of walking poles. With three brilliant local guides we picked our way through the jungle path and started the climb. About 35-40 minutes later we had done our first kilometre. Just another 7.5km to go and the ‘flattest’ one only just done.
Our group started to split up as people found their own stride. We had a rough target of getting to Laban Rata at between 4-5pm. Every now and then, shouts of ‘PORTER!’ would move down the line indicating that us tourists better move for the locals taking bags and supplies up to camp.
We saw more luggage than man sprint up past us as we watched, mouth open in awe at the physical strength of these guys – some carrying more than 35kg of stuff including crates of beer, bed linen, even mattresses, up and down.
At every 0.5k there was a sign. At every 1k there was a rest point. These proved good places to eye up climbers from yesterday and that morning coming down. “Is it worth it?” “Did you make it?” “Are we close?” started all conversations. “Yes, yes and you keep going” was the usual reply. I was already looking forward to being in their position the next day.
A packed lunch of sandwiches, fried chicken, a boiled egg and an apple at the 5k mark gave us some much needed energy. Out of the jungle, we were now passing through the clouds and the terrain had turned into open (and sunny) boulder steps. Split from the group, it was just me and Aussie nurse Esther climbing together chit chatting (in between laboured breaths) and giving various exclamations of being in the sweatiest condition of our lives. Lovely!
Any area of flat was savoured, any sip of water too. At 5.5k we knew we were nearly done for day one. We had smashed our time target, on course for a 2pm arrival at the resthouse – but I was slowing down. Going three steps and stopping for breath took time. Esther ploughed on. Out of water and exhausted I was ecstatic to see the outbuildings for generators and water tanks signalling Laban Rata.
Shouts and cheers from my walking mates greeted me as I finally heaved my body up the final elevation, stumbled up the building steps and collapsed into a chair on the balcony. The first 3,270m (10,730ft) were done. I stayed horizontal on my bunk bed for the next two hours, only rising to hear that unfortunately, altitude had got to a Dutch girl, who was currently throwing up in the bathroom.
Despite physical tiredness – sleeping does not come easy on the mountain. The low oxygen in the air means that you sleep for 10minutes and are awake for 45 there after, constantly. The night before we had been given our departure times for the summit based on how we had done that day – with the slowest leaving first. There is no over taking on this stretch of the route as much of it is on ropes. I was in the second team, of three, with a leaving time of 2.30am.
Sharing the female eight bed dorm, we finally woke around 1.30am to the sound of heavy rain. Our hearts sank. It was a disaster. We had be warned before that under the circumstances of any rain we would not ascend and would have to turn around and climb back down to base.
It was too dangerous. The mountain was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake on 5 June 2015 at 7.15am local time. Despite lasting just 30 seconds, it was the strongest earthquake to effect Malaysia since 1976.
The tremors caused a landslide and the collapse of a huge piece of granite from the exposed rock face which crashed down on the ropes and stairs section just before the 7km check point. 18 people died. Including Robbi Sapinggi, the son of our lead guide. 11 were injured and over 130 others were stranded up on the exposed mountain for days with no way of getting down.
While a new route close to the old one has been created, there are still weak points in the rock and any sustained water run off, it was feared, could act as a lubricant and cause another slide. The area is also still experiencing weak aftershocks. Joh Min our guide, told us to stand down and go back to sleep.